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When I was a little girl, my family and I celebrated my “adoption birthday” at the Golden Dragon, a buffet style restaurant that served cheap Westernized Chinese food, like deep fried spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, and seasoned fried rice mixed with vegetables.
We lived in a small Northern Ontario town, where it snowed heavily during the winter months. Hence, unless we travelled for miles, it would have been nearly impossible to find a restaurant that served real, authentic Chinese food.
I was never bothered by this, the same way I was never bothered by the fact that I grew up in a mostly white community, and where I was often the only Asian kid in my class. I had been adopted at the age of nine months from a Chinese orphanage, a result of the one-child policy. I felt I understood who I was. So, when I decided to move across the country at the age of 18, I had no idea that an identity crisis was awaiting me.
In Vancouver, strangers stopped me on the street and spoke to me in Mandarin, asking for directions. I gave them an apologetic look, and kept walking, trying to ignore the shame that rushed to my cheeks at the realization that I did not know the language of my native country. I had also not mastered the art of using chopsticks, so I blushed whenever I had to ask restaurant servers to bring me a knife or fork.
Half my classmates were of Asian descent and for the first time in my life, I blended in. Except, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging.
Soon after my arrival to the West Coast, I started to pay more attention to my surroundings as I rode the bus to school every morning. I noticed restaurant signs that were incomprehensible for me. I walked around Chinatown and stopped by grocery stores that sold products labelled with Chinese characters that I could not decipher. I reasoned that finding real Chinese food could help me reconnect with my roots.
I was lucky to find friends from China who had also studied at the University of British Columbia. They held my hand as I started on my quest of finding authentic Chinese food. My first-year roommate was particularly helpful. I could tell that she felt honoured about the opportunity to share that part of the Chinese culture with me.
Each time we sat down at a new restaurant, I felt a tinge of anxiety, but mostly excitement. I took culinary risks and learned to forgive myself for not enjoying every new dish, as long as I gave it a try.
My roommate easily conversed with servers and had no difficulty finding dishes that accommodated my hard-to-please taste buds. She translated menu items and never made me feel inferior when I asked for clarifications about the types of noodles.
The best part was that our conversations about the meal in front of us were like a set of keys that unlocked the doors to learning more about what it was like to grow up in a Chinese household. I felt a dash of envy as she recounted her childhood memories. I would ask her questions about Chinese culture as she poured more fried noodles and slices of pork onto my plate.
By the time I started my final year of university, eating out at Chinese restaurants had become a fun hobby. We navigated the Peaceful’s and Yushang Hot Pot’s locations around the city and celebrated birthdays and other special occasions together. I was convinced that each new dish could not have been more authentic, and my curiosity was satisfied. That feeling of not belonging was slowly fading away.
Then, I signed up for an English literature seminar, and read Cheuk Kwan’s memoir, Have You Eaten Yet? Stories from Chinese restaurants Around the World. I only made it through the first few chapters before bursting into sobs.
I learned that Chinese cuisine, unlike others, can be found in every corner of the globe, because of the Chinese diaspora. In other words, Chinese restaurants all over the world are run by immigrant families, but often, restaurant owners must tweak the recipes of their authentic dishes according to their customer’s preferences since their restaurant is their only source of economic survival. As a result, traditional Chinese cuisine has evolved in many ways.
I concluded that maybe my dining experiences had not been so authentic after all, and my guess is that we ate more fusion foods than anything else. One time I was treated to a Thanksgiving lunch at an acclaimed Chinese eatery, whose menu reflected a rich Chinese heritage. My friend’s mom who had grown up in Taiwan confirmed that the slicing of the Peking duck in front of our table was a dignified attempt at providing us with an authentic experience.
The other dishes – which included ribs marinated in black vinegar, golden and silver eggs, and rice balls with red bean paste – were delicious as well, but upon closer inspection, I noticed that some ingredients had no connection to China after all. The dessert menu only added to my growing sense of disappointment, since it featured chocolate mousse and tiramisu cake.
Since then, I have come to the conclusion that everybody has a different definition of authenticity. Besides, who has the authority in deciding what makes a dish authentic or not?
I will continue my search for a Chinese food experience that feels authentic to me. I suspect that I will need to travel to my birth country to find it. Perhaps one day I will find myself at the heart of the city of Yueyang, eating dishes made from local ingredients, cooked by individuals who have lived there for generations. That will be the ultimate food experience for me.
In the meantime, I will keep ordering Chinese takeout, including wonton soup and chow mein noodles, when I am too lazy to cook on a Friday evening. I will continue to trust my Chinese friends who will introduce me to new dishes each time we go out to eat. Perhaps one day, I will even introduce my own adopted family to the Chinese food scene in Vancouver.
If Kwan’s assertion that “the test for authenticity is one’s ability to evoke the memory of a childhood meal,” then I may have already lost an opportunity to experience Chinese culture the way that I’ve envisioned. But like the food that has helped me feel a better sense of belonging, who has the authority to define my Chinese identity, other than myself?
Daphnée Lévesque lives in Vancouver.